WNO’s “Otello” gets the job done despite staging distractions

Sun Oct 27, 2019 at 1:16 pm
By Matthew Guerrieri
Russell Thomas and Leah Crocetto star in Verdi’s Otello at Washington National Opera. Photo: Scott Suchman

Opera is predicated on song; Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello is predicated on suspicion and mistrust. So there’s a strange sort of congruence, at least, in a production of Otello determined not to trust the potential magic of someone simply standing and singing. Such was Washington National Opera’s season opener at the Kennedy Center on Saturday: often very good singers navigating around a staging that only intermittently stayed out of their way.

Otello is tricky enough. The vocal demands are manifold: power and stamina, certainly, but also subtlety. The opera telescopes Shakespeare’s fine-grinding dramatic wheels into a hurtling downhill course; emotional gradations have to register precisely and immediately. They didn’t quite in this performance: the onset of Otello’s jealousy, for instance, was a flipped switch, rather than a gradual escalation. (Iago’s third-act boast, “Il mio velen lavora”—my poison is working—registered as ironic understatement alongside Otello’s ravings.) But the singing could rise to the occasion.

The three leads offered diverse strategies for tackling Verdi’s challenges. Russell Thomas, as Otello, mined his muscular tenor for as many colors as the necessary vocal force would allow, shifting as the emotion demanded. But he marshaled his forces, carefully approaching softer and gentler passages until the opera’s second half, when he took more risks throughout his range. 

Baritone George Gagnidze took on Iago from the opposite direction, deploying, for the most part, a single color—a sturdy, forward-focused ring—but varying volume and the speed and sharpness of his diction. 

Singing Desdemona, Leah Crocetto, too, rationed her timbre, as well as her power, saving the full extent of her voice for her climactic showcase. 

Moments of noticeable caution were balanced by justified payoffs: Gagnidze’s searing “Credo,” Thomas’s thrillingly volatile third-act meltdown in front of the Venetian delegates, Crocetto’s luminous, chillingly still “Ave Maria.”

The supporting cast showed accomplishment and promise. As Cassio, Zach Borichevsky was able to maintain and display a lyrical streak in his tenor voice. Deborah Nansteel’s Emilia disappeared a bit in ensembles, especially the Act 3 sextet, but unleashed solid mezzo-soprano metal in her climactic reckoning. 

Nansteel was one of four graduates of the WNO’s young artist program on stage; the others—tenor Alexander McKissick, making bright, pleading work of Roderigo’s few lines; baritone Hunter Enoch, sharp and clear as Montano; bass Wei Wu, giving Lodovico grave posture—garnered enthusiastic applause from the WNO-invested crowd. 

The choruses, under Steven Gathman’s direction, provided antipodal energy, zealous volume alternating with hushed atmosphere. In the pit, conductor Daniele Callegari kept a brisk pace. Sometimes too brisk; the orchestra nearly charged through a chance for the audience to applaud Crocetto’s “Willow Song.” And some of Verdi’s more daring, exposed instrumental inspirations skated on thin ice, in terms of ensemble and tuning. But the prime Verdian virtue—momentum—was in ample supply.

The production, originally staged at English National Opera, channeled the monochrome starkness of late-imperialist authoritarianism, all rough plaster and military leather. The palette was grim and gray—the opening-night audience, in its well-heeled finery, sartorially lapped those onstage—though striking lighting (originally designed by Adam Silverman, revived here by Andrew Cutbush) turned that limit into expressionist virtue: sharp shards of harsh low-angle light casting tall, ominous shadows.

It was in keeping with David Alden’s direction, which seemed to echo silent movies, for better or for worse, mixing compelling Caligari-esque tableaux with big-gestured action that occasionally veered into unintended slapstick. The idea of having a solo dancer (Claudia Agüero Mariño) lurk about the physical and, presumably, psychological edges of the action was only inconsistently integrated, but signaled the staging’s physical restlessness. The performers were tasked with an awful lot of movement; the intent may have been an unstable prowling over shifting ground, but the effect was often distracting, or awkward, or both. Otello’s third-act crisis was very nearly upstaged by sections of the chorus dashing from one side of the stage to the other.

One felt the distortion of emphasizing music already filled with emphasis: by running a highlighter over what Verdi had already so efficiently and emphatically underlined, rather too many of Arrigo Boito’s lines landed as humorous.

And still, it worked. When the staging let the performers stop, focus, and center the operatic basics of breath, tone, word, the combination of Shakespeare, Verdi’s thoroughly practical operatic expertise, and skillful singing carried the day. The direction might have been distracting, and possible topical thematic depths—racial resentment, corrosive gender roles, the vitiating force of cynical, transactional morality summed up in Iago’s belief “che il giusto è un istrion beffardo,” that the righteous man is a mocking actor—went unplumbed.

The experience of this Otello was rather that of people doing their job with skill and persistence, even under less-than-ideal conditions. Then again, that could be its own implicit topical commentary, couldn’t it?

Otello runs through November 16. kennedy-center.org

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